The Midwest and South aren’t far apartPublished 1:29pm Saturday, April 9, 2011
Column: Pass the Hot Dish, by Alexandra Kloster
The air smelled like somebody sprayed Coty Musk on an ambrosia salad. It was thick. You could taste it. I was 14 and fresh off my first plane ride. They fed us trout almondine on the way down, and it was good, or maybe I only thought it was because I was so excited.
You couldn’t beat the Midwest out of me with a switch, but I knew, after one day in Charlotte, N.C., that I was in love with the South. I hadn’t tasted a hushpuppy yet, or been thrown around by the waves in the Gulf. I hadn’t watched the kingfishers hunt the beach or stared into a maze of kudzu until my eyes crossed.
I’d only heard the voice of a Southern Lady, but that siren was strong enough to get me to follow her for 26 summers. I’d find her in North Carolina, Alabama, Georgia and Florida. She’d have a different face every time, but the song remained the same.
I was walking into a restaurant with my brother-in-law Kip. It was his job and frequent transfers that began these yearly sojourns to the South. Ahead of me a man pulled open the door for the woman in front of him.
She paused, dipped her chin and raised her eyes. “I haven’t had a man hold the door for me in so long, I’m not sure I remember how to react.”
I’d never heard such a sound. Her lips were pink and her voice was all exhale. Vowels were bungee cords, stretching and bouncing. In three seconds she’d managed a whole contradiction of demure, coy, sophisticated and strong.
I tripped in behind her, looked up at the man still holding the door and said, “Yeah, me too. I mean, me neither. I mean, I haven’t had a man either. In a long time!”
I was a teenager who looked 11. He was about 40 and looked like he was going to call social services. Clearly, I had a lot of practicing to do.
The next year I landed in Alabama for the summer. I cut my long hair, curled it and replaced my Northern coat with a fringed white leather jacket. If I kept my mouth shut, I resembled a real Southern girl. This time the Lady lived in the radio. All summer long, every four songs, she’d say, “Time to turn, before you burn.”
She was a mystery. As I lay there, skin turning the color of pecan pie, I’d try to imitate her voice.
“Why, of course I’ll dance with you, darlin’. Oh sure, I’m 18.” I’d struggle to get that perfect blend of humidity and bourbon into my adolescent pitch until Kip flipped my air mattress sending me into the pool and back to earth.
In Georgia, the Lady found me with my nose up against the glass at the Savannah Candy Kitchen.
“Honey, have you ever tried a praline?”
“Well, come on in. It’ll change your life.”
It did. I went home with four boxes and ordered four more the next week. That voice could get me to do anything. I walked up to a car rental window in Pensacola set on an economy compact, met the Lady and walked out with a Cadillac. I walked into a salon in Atlanta a brunette, met the Lady and walked out a blonde.
Last year I went back to Savannah to visit a friend from high school. I was touched by the way he and his friends drew me into their world for a night. I didn’t feel like an outsider. I didn’t feel like my tone was off-key. After 26 years of loving the South but feeling out of place there, I finally realized that all those voices were a lot like what I heard up North.
Midwestern friendliness and Southern hospitality aren’t so different. It’s just people loving where they live and wanting strangers from strange lands to love it too. The invitations may sound like they come from different worlds, but the intentions are the same. Come and share some momentary kinship with us or stay a while. Either way, we’ll hold the door open for you.
Woodbury resident Alexandra Kloster appears each Sunday. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and her blog is Radishes at Dawn at alexandrakloster.com.